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Privates On Parade

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Michael Grandage’s star-studded takeover at the Noel Coward Theatre gives you the chance to catch A-list actors in big, meaty roles. First up: an Olivier Award-winner giving great fruit-hat.

Theatre-land has been buzzing ever since director heavyweight Michael Grandage announced plans for a season of five plays, featuring a stellar cast with bigger pulling power than Prince Harry on a lads' holiday. Jude Law as Henry V, Daniel Radcliffe in Martin McDonagh, a Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw double act... But to kick things off we have Simon Russell Beale, dubbed by The Independent as “the greatest stage actor of his generation”, pouring his prodigious talent into a quick-fire farce. And not to mention several pairs of thigh-high stockings.

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Peter Nichols’ 1977 comedy Privates On Parade follows a troop of army boys stationed in post-War Malaya, where Chinese guerrilla communists are chomping at the bit of British rule. But these tommies aren’t here to quash an uprising; they’re here to do jazz hands. Entertaining the troops is the job of the S.A.D.U.S.E.A. (that’s the Song And Dance Unit South East Asia) who are headed up by Russell Beale as Acting Captain Terri Dennis, a drag queen performance artist who is like the musical version of Dale Winton.

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Things start to unravel though, when young private Steven Flowers (Joseph Timms) turns up, all fresh-faced, virginal, and from Swindon, no less.  Flowers’ tentative steps into a world of musical theatre and questionable masculinity gets even more complicated when he falls into a love affair with Eurasian showgirl Sylvia (Sophiya Haque) and uncovers some very dodgy dealings from above. Nichols sets out to satirise the empty arrogance of British imperialism, and makes an appeal for racial and sexual equality – but mostly he has a lot of fun with comedy showtunes, nudge-nudge-wink-wink innuendos, and lots and lots and lots of camp.

Giving most of that camp is Russell Beale, and the double Olivier Award-winner delivers his limp wristed performance with a droll perfection. And the timing of the comedy is meticulous, thanks in large part to Grandage’s characteristic directorial precision. That said, the humour won’t be to everyone’s taste – it’s the sort of “ooh-err” Carry On type farce that some of us won’t get because we’ve been too busy watching Peep Show. But it’s easy enough to warm to the exuberance of the production, and there is something undeniably festive about a man in a dress telling lots of knob jokes.

by Stephanie Soh

Privates On Parade is on at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, until 2 March 2013. Tickets can be bought here.

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